While Serbia today carries the mantle of its past (the war in the 90s), the documentary “Brasslands” (2013) shows - on the other hand - this region alive with a joyous celebration of Serbian music played by hundreds of musicians.
Since 1962, the small village Guča, nestled in the lush countryside of central Serbia, hosts a festival of brass musicians to celebrate Balkan music. 2012 was the 50th anniversary and an estimated half million people were there to celebrate, listen, dance, drink, and party. A filmmaker group - the Meerkat Media Collective - collaboratively directed “Brasslands,” a documentary that focuses on three different bands as they prepare for and then perform at this festival.
There’s the American band, based in Brooklyn, New York, which began in 1983. None had Serbian roots but all were drawn to the allure of the Serbian style of folk music. This hodge-podge group of Americans call themselves Zlatne Uste (and there is a humorous explanation on how their misunderstanding of the language results in a strange meaning for the band name). It is clear that this band loves traditional Balkan dance music.
They are fascinating to watch and listen to as they interpret music which has emanated from thousands of miles away and centuries ago. As Zlatne Uste arrives in the small Serbian village, echoes of the distant bombing of the region by NATO forces, including the U.S., reverberate silently.
The master trumpeter of Serbia, Déjan Petrovic, is the next focus of the film. Though he is highly revered, Petrovic hopes for even greater acclaim, opportunities outside the world of weddings and small celebrations. He talks of acting “like everything is OK” even though for him and other Serbians the ethnic divisions within the culture and the response of the Western forces are pervading undertones.
Petrovic is a White Serbian. The film shows the third perspective from the point of view of a Black Serbian, Demiran Ćerimović. He is a well-respected trumpeter of a band from southern Serbia, where the music played has Roma origins with Turkish influences. His musicianship is particularly soulful and my favorite part of the film is when he and his band play. Ćerimović knows that prejudice against Roma players keeps him from capitalizing on his superb renditions of the Gypsy-inspired music he plays.
Back to politics briefly. One of the Serbs comments that “when you think of Serbians all you think of is the war. So now we’re trying to show our music to the world.” “Brasslands” does that. Music speaks to the commonality among people, and if anything can move toward uniting people, a music festival of this sort can help.
“Brasslands” delves into the joyous celebration of music based on traditions and cultures of the region yet reminds the viewer that after the music ends, normal life returns. But during the time that music soars upward, following the trajectory of the raised brass instruments, people are united in their love for this wonder. One of the American musicians remarks, “Nothing else matters but this,” and it would be admirable if all could carry this feeling with them after the festival ends.
The huge party that follows the competitions at the festival is raucous, filled with dancing, drinking, and fireworks. As musicians improvise, surrounding crowds are exuberant, dancing, and cheering them on. Harmony and cacophony exist side-by-side.
Here’s an interesting aside about the Meerkat Media Collective. During the last decade, this group of creators has produced 2 documentaries, a narrative feature, and a number of shorts, all of which have screened around the world. They are inspired by the “communal nature of meerkats” (quote is from their website.). If “Brasslands” is any indication, this non-hierarchical way of putting together a film results in a unique and varied perspective on a story.
The Southwest premiere of this film screens at the Guild this week, Friday August 22 through Monday August 25 at 6:00 pm only. There’s a special treat on Monday. Prior to the 6 pm screening, the local Balkan dance band Goddess of Arno will perform. The Guild is in the Nob Hill area, at 3405 Central Avenue NE Albuquerque, NM. Check out its website or call (505) 255-1848 for additional information. Sources: The Guild website; Brasslands website; vimeo.com, imdb